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It’s All About Attitude: Thoughts from Oteil


It’s All About Attitude: Thoughts from Oteil

Meet Oteil Burbridge –

I’ve come to a new place in my outlook towards work that I wish I had committed to long ago. It’s all about my attitude onstage or in the studio. You often hear people say, “You want to play every gig like its your last”, and it almost becomes cliché’. But what if it really was your last? Well if it really is, then I want it to be a peak experience: joyful, sensitive, powerful, subtle, comical, serious, meaningful (at least from my end). I say this last bit because I cannot control what any given band mate’s experience is going to be. If they’re in a bad mood, or generally just don’t care that day, then there’s nothing I can do. But that shouldn’t keep me from trying to hit that mark myself. And who knows, if I do my job right, they too might get swept up in the joy of it and join me. And, I find that people want to hire me more often because having a joyful experience is infectious. Joy is the best drug there is. In the past I have not been as successful at maintaining a positive attitude at all times. Although I sometimes wish that I could go back and change that, the best I can do is to do better going forward.

Being a human is so hard sometimes and so many things can derail us from even trying to be consistent about having a joyful attitude on the job. There’s no doubt too that there are some obstacles outside of ourselves that stand in the way of this ideal and cannot actually be overcome. In the past I have quit situations like that and paid dearly for it monetarily, but not before trying to help change the problems that are hanging me up. Sometimes it’s impossible to quit certain situations depending on what your financial responsibilities are at the time. If you have a good paying, steady gig, a wife and three kids, and a complete jerk for a boss, then you might not be able to leave so easily. But remember joy is infectious. You may have to use the “kill them with kindness” strategy and be joyful in the midst of their misery. Remember, it’s not their last gig that is the subject here, it’s yours. Also, I know that sometimes you can be in the midst of a bad circumstance on a given day yourself and there may seem like there’s no joy in sight, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a powerful and meaningful experience anyway.

Say a loved one has passed on and I’m smack in the middle of grieving for them as I head to work, then I will consider a couple of different ideas. Grief is a powerful and meaningful emotion in music, and it will be totally appropriate if we’re playing the Blues or any sad song. Maybe someone in the audience is grieving too and will really connect with you, and find some healing and relief for a few moments. I know that the person who has passed on would want me to experience joy this particular day because they loved me and would hope the best for me. I would want to pass on some joy and meaning to others as a tribute to the person who has passed. Grief can be fuel, a catalyst, an invitation to a deeper connection with each other.

Or perhaps I’ve just had a major fight with a loved one and come to the gig with a lot of anger. If I was on drums I might just use it as fuel until it dissipated, but as a bassist I’m much more likely to take a deep breath and seek that joyful feeling to replace the anger. Sometimes I might bang on the drums a little before I go to my gig and get out my frustration ahead of time. Not only would I would feel better, but I would be thinking more clearly, and probably be apt to go and apologize and reconcile much sooner than normal. And I would have had a great gig in the meantime. Music can be one of the best healers there is; it has changed my attitude many times. My friend and band mate Mark Kimbrell has the unique ability to use even anger in his playing. Whatever he feels at any given moment is likely to come flying out of his guitar. I’ll never forget once when we were playing a small nightclub; there wasn’t much of a stage and consequently not much separation from the audience. This is not so bad unless the audience members start to get drunk. A rather intoxicated woman kept approaching Mark in the middle of his solo, screaming what I assume were song requests. He tried his best to ignore her but was unsuccessful. Finally he got so mad that he aimed the headstock of his guitar right at her, turned up really loud and literally cussed her out with his guitar. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. The entire band was laughing hysterically.

If I know someone in the band is being a real jerk, is losing a battle with addiction, etc., maybe that is a gig that I need to turn down. If it’s just for one night, or a short stint I could probably get through it if they can. If it’s a long-term commitment though, then its better if I turn that gig down in the beginning. At this point in my career, the gigs that I turn down are as important as the ones that I accept. I remember early in my career when I was artistically and financially starved, and my soon to be mentor Col. Bruce Hampton said to me, “You should come play with me. You’re still going to starve but we’re going to have an unbelievable time playing music”. And we did starve at first. But what a mind blowing experience it was! That gig eventually led to me getting the spot with the Allman Brothers Band. Even though I cast aside gigs that could have made me some decent money in the short run, the joy and magic that came out of my experience with the Col. led to much greater things in the long run.

Lately, the most important thing that I’ve realized is that each person in a band is affected in some way by the other’s attitude at that moment. I want to make sure that if it is the last gig I get to play then I want it to be as much of a peak experience as it can be for myself, the rest of the band, and the audience. Whether I am dealing with problems from within, or one of my band mates that is having troubles, then I know that there are tools that I can use to make the situation better and not just resign myself to feeling bad and just “getting through it”. Its important to remember that we are people’s relief from their own daily drudgery and what we do may help change someone else’s attitude in a positive way. I would hate to think that someone was not feeling so great and shelled out their hard earned money to watch me play only to see me up there with bad attitude. What a let down. Unfortunately, when you do this for a living, eventually it may feel like a job sometimes. I went through a lot over the last 28 years so that I wouldn’t be doing a job that I wasn’t really excited about. Its unfortunate that I let that happen in the past, but now that I am older I have a lot more gratitude about being able to live this life and I think it should show consistently.

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